“Does anyone know the Hebrew word for ‘occupation’?” A question from the state assigned Hebrew translator to the packed out courtroom.
And that kicked off the trial into the killing of US activist Rachel Corrie, which took her family seven years to secure.
Today, several months later, we were back at Haifa District Court to hear from the Israeli soldier who was driving the bulldozer that killed Rachel whilst she was peacefully protesting against Palestinian home demolitions in Gaza in 2003.
And hear is all we could do – thanks to an unusual request filed by the state, and accepted by the judge, the driver and other soldiers testifying in this case have done so behind a dark screen to protect their identity (for “security” reasons).
I can’t tell you the driver’s name (there is a gag order) but I can say that he is a Russian immigrant to Israel that, ironically, shares the same birthday as Rachel.
It was a long and painful testimony, the driver answering the questions with variations of the phrase: “I don’t remember.”
He couldn’t even recall the time of day Rachel was killed and claimed he did not realize when he knocked Rachel down and drove over her with his four-tonne Caterpillar bulldozer.
Presumably, he also didn’t realize when he then backed up over her a second time crushing her body with his blade.
For Cindy Corrie, a retired music teacher from Olympia, Washington, that was the hardest part of the day: “Hearing the man who killed my daughter, without a shred of remorse in his voice, say he couldn’t remember when it happened.”
As Cindy says, even if he did it by mistake, how could he not recall the time of day he killed a 23-year-old girl?
Apart from the fact that it took five years from the time the Corries filed the lawsuit to the trial date – the court procedures and last minute changes by the Israeli state attorneys are simply embarrassing for a country that claims to be a democracy and practice the rule of law.
Sub par translators, erratic trial dates and a judge that stops proceedings because he has made other appointments (as happened today cutting the session short by two hours) have delayed the trial and frustrated everyone.
The Corries, journalists and rights groups were told they could enter the courtroom at 9am this morning.
At 8.15am the state filled the room with its “observers”, which meant apart from the family and their lawyers, only three or four journalists were allowed (in rotation) into the trial room to listen and report on what was happening.
I was inside for barely half an hour – just enough time to hear the driver make the point that he was simply following orders.
His superiors, he says, gave him instructions to continue with the demolitions despite the civilians protesting by the houses.
And therein lies the reason why this trial is so important.
It is not looking to blame or hold to account the soldier that dealt the final blow to Rachel.
The Corries are suing the state of Israel, for a nominal one dollar, for allowing, and at some points encouraging, its soldiers to act with impunity.
Whether they are preventing an aid ship from getting to Gaza, or in Rachel’s case stopping an activist defending a Palestinian accountant’s home, Israeli soldiers too often act with force, which shows they believe they are above the law.
And, as will be shown if the Corries lose this case, it’s because Israeli law will always protect them.